Netflix's 'Night Stalker' series deftly captures a terrifying L.A. summer
Los Angeles was terrorized by a phantom in the spring and summer of 1985. Creeping into homes at night, he tortured and murdered more than a dozen people, with the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys the focus of his mayhem: assaulting women in their 80s; kidnapping and molesting children as young as 6; scrawling a pentagram on one of his murder victims and demanding that another pray to Satan.
Netflix’s new docuseries “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” premiering Wednesday, chronicles the pursuit of the elusive predator whose crimes stand out as particularly heinous and evil — even by the standards of the city that’s home to the Black Dahlia, the Manson family and the Hillside Strangler.
The four-part series is a powerful and haunting addition to the streamer’s onslaught of true-crime fare, but more than that, it deftly captures a place and time that many Angelenos will remember as part of their collective history.
This L.A. horror story is told primarily by the homicide detectives who broke the case, an odd couple who symbolize different racial and demographic swaths of the Southland. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detective Gil Carrillo was a hulking teddy bear of a man back in 1985 — a young, earnest yet savvy newcomer from East L.A. Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Salerno was a seasoned veteran, a hard-nosed gumshoe who was revered for his work in solving the Hillside Strangler case.
Together they hunted a serial killer whose methodology seemed to be no methodology at all. Also called the Valley Intruder, the Night Stalker’s victims were men, women and children. They were Latino, Asian, white. They resided in the hills and the flats, in apartments and houses, in Rosemead, Sun Valley, Monterey Park, Arcadia and Diamond Bar. He killed some. He let others go free.
The retired detectives recount the Stalker’s prolific string of crimes, which peaked during a heat wave and stretched to San Francisco, and what it took to bring him to justice. Archival footage brings Mayor Tom Bradley’s sweaty city into focus, in its post-Olympics glow — and the resulting shadows. Men in putty-colored suits, reading the Herald Examiner, eyeing the creepy composite sketch of a yet-to-be named killer. Boxy K-cars and exhaust-spewing RTD buses share the road with LAPD cruisers. Downtown L.A. is a wasteland of dilapidated buildings and empty parking lots.
Former local TV news reporters who covered the story —Tony Valdez of KTTV, Laurel Erickson of KNBC, helicopter pilot Zoey Tur of L.A. News Service — recall that summer’s wild chain of events. A thwarted abduction in Eagle Rock. An older couple slain in Glendale. Eyewitness accounts of a thin perpetrator with bad teeth wearing a black Member’s Only jacket and AC/DC ball cap.
Surviving victims and their loved ones are also interviewed throughout the series, describing encounters with “the devil himself.” Anastasia Hronas was only 6 when she was stolen out of her bed at night, driven to an apartment, repeatedly molested, then dropped at a gas station where she was told by her abductor to ask the clerk to call 911. She recounts the horrific ordeal with brutal clarity. When asked about her now, Carrillo chokes up when he remembers Hronas picking the perpetrator out of a lineup.
The murderer isn’t brought into focus until the series’ final episodes. It’s an effective way to keep him ghostly and terrifying, and ensure this L.A. story isn’t simply the story of Richard Ramirez.
Instead, the documentary, directed by Tiller Russell, dives deep into the psyche of the detectives, and the fear of a city. All lived in the shadow of a figure so malevolent he seemed almost supernatural.
A former employee of the L.A. Public Library describes an ominous meeting with Ramirez before he knew he was the monster that’d been terrorizing the region. He said he had a strong body odor, “like a goat. Dead eyes.” Ramirez wanted to know where to find books on horoscopes and torture.
Ramirez was apprehended as the summer of 1985 neared its end by a quartet of East L.A. residents who beat him so severely before the police arrived that he begged the cops to save him. They did, and he was convicted in 1989 of 43 felonies, including 13 counts of murder, and sentenced to death, before dying in prison in 2013. In the end, it was the L.A. on such memorable display in “Night Stalker” that proved Ramirez wasn’t invincible after all.